The Nine Lives of Marion Barry

As Marion Barry talks, he remains fascinating, in a train-wreck kind of way.

The Nine Lives of Marion Barry

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Marion Barry, Effi Barry, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Jesse Jackson, Adrienne Washington, George Pelecanos, Max Berry, Jim Vance, Bruce Johnson, Mark Plotkin, Tom Sherwood, Harry Jaffe, Bill Regardie, Dennis Harvey, Jonathan Agronsky
Network: HBO
Director: Dana Flor
Air date: 2009-08-10

Effi Barry, ever stylish and self-possessed, remembers the rumors swirling around her husband Marion, when he was mayor of Washington DC in 1988. As recalled in the documentary, The Nine Lives of Marion Barry, the onetime civil rights activist was repeatedly seen at nightclubs, drinking to excess, and gallivanting. She smiles, her mouth tight as she speaks: "Pretty soon, it's hard to determine what is fact and what is fiction, because it's all possible."

At this point in the film -- which offers a loose overview of Marion Barry's long, erratic career -- you might well be wondering how Effi endured all those ambiguities and broken promises. She offers an unsurprising explanation (which is to say, no explanation at all), based in his youthful energy and charisma and the "vision that he had for the city." It's an explanation much like those offered by other interview subjects -- from reporter Adrienne Washington ("Marion Barry embodied the James Brown theme song, 'Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud'") to Jesse Jackson ("Marion was one of us, he was a marching picketing protesting freedom-riding risk-taking young man who had that fire") -- Barry sought to "turn lives around," to mobilize communities and fight federal-corporate greed. "I thought he was one of the most brilliant men I had ever met," says Effi.

That that brilliance had everything to do with race, pride, and politics is crucial -- to his achievements and controversies, to his "nine lives." The movie sets off a As Effi says, "Marion's hair wasn’t straight enough, his skin wasn’t light enough, he didn’t look like them, he didn’t talk like them," all of which made him popular among voters who had long been feeling left out. This is his appeal at the start of his career and also, in the film's alternating structure, his last campaign, for Ward 8 councilman in 2004.

At first, the film submits, Barry skillfully negotiated local DC politics while laying the groundwork for a national career. In 1974 when the District, then 70% African American, finally achieved home rule (before then, it was governed by Congress), Barry saw opportunity. Running for the city council, he "lived among the people," and loudly protested oppressive police tactics; his mug shots underlined his street cred. Moreover, once elected, in 1977, he's caught up in a hostage-taking, shot -- and suddenly, he's a TV news star. "He was a hero," observes political advisor Max Berry, "It was a politician's dream."

The film intimates the publicity helped him win the mayoral race (on election night, Effie says over mages of cheering crowds and church singers, "People were high on the thought that change was coming, it was a new day"). But Nine Lives provides few details on Barry's work as mayor (for nearly three terms), instead focusing on the infamous scandals -- most emerging as the city was in decline as well. One reporter observes, ", "In a very real way, Barry's decline from drugs started to mirror the city's decline from drugs."

Still, his followers were loyal. Even his arrest and conviction for possession of crack cocaine (another sort of show, disseminated via the videotape in Rasheeda Moore's hotel room) don't dissuade his supporters. As Evans-McNeil puts it, "We didn't care whether the things they were uncovering and talking about were true or not. We didn’t care. We understand you're attacking him because you were attacking us."

Barry confesses his wrongdoing, though it's not clear that even now he's able to stay sober. "I was doing cocaine," he says. A sentimental piano soundtrack encourages you to feel his pain: "At the time, you don’t know what you're doing, or at least I didn’t know what I was doing." Old footage shows him lecturing to students on the dangers of doing drugs, at the same time that he was using. Barry notes here, "I didn't even connect it between what I did and what I was saying. That's the complexity of the disease. It doesn't connect logically to what you're doing. It just runs you rather than you run it."

As Marion Barry talks, he remains focused on his future and he remains fascinating, in a train-wreck kind of way. Nine Lives also includes testimony from Sandra Seegars, who ran against him in 2004, and his 14-year-old godson, Dennis Harvey. Her outrage is obvious ("I'm saying Marion Barry helped create the problem, because he was on drugs. It’s a bad role model"). But his disappointment, as much as he tries to work it through on camera, is most disturbing. Admitting that his friends give him a hard time because his godfather is a crack addict, Dennis adds, "He apologized, he said he would never do it again, which he did." The boy's face reveals his pain, and his utter belief in the promise.

Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2018 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.